Last Halloween, a post on this blog introduced the subject of witch trials in France from the 15th through the 18th centuries. In this post, I would like to take a look at one of the most important French works on the crime of witchcraft and its prosecution, a book that gave considerable encouragement to the witch hunt: De la demonomanie des sorciers, by Jean Bodin (1536-1596). It is a unique and, as we will see, a haunted book.
The author of the book, Jean Bodin, is probably better known for his book Les Six livres de la République (Six Books on the Commonwealth), written in 1576, a work for which he became one of the most important French political thinkers of the 16th century. Bodin was conspicuously modern in some ways. He seems to have held a very broadminded and tolerant attitude toward all the monotheistic religions and denominations of Christianity, which he demonstrated in many works but especially in his Heptaplomeres; he worked from a comparative and empirical method; and he even claimed to have invented the expression “political science.” (See Turcetti, below.) A contemporary of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Bodin was like Montaigne and other skeptics of that time in that he rejected the medieval understanding that the laws of the state reflected in some very definite way eternal principles of a divine order and natural law. Instead, he saw them as exhibiting “a high degree of particularity, variability, and mutability.” (Engster, p. 471.)
Unlike these skeptics, however, he did not accept the idea that states could govern in secular terms alone. The political order needed some kind of grounding in a divine and eternal source of authority. Part of his solution was to adopt a concept of sovereignty that gave the sovereign complete authority to alter the laws of the state; a king, for instance, could therefore make laws as he saw fit, unrestrained by the medieval idea that the ruler is subject to the laws of the state or to custom or the consent of the kingdom. (Engster, p. 471.) Bodin then linked that idea of sovereignty to the divine order. The sovereign was the lieutenant of God on earth; disobedience to him and his law was disobedience to God. This way, the laws did not need to be grounded in the divine or in universal natural law to be binding. Obedience to them was obligatory because of their source in the sovereign. (Engster, p. 491.) These ideas return in his treatment of witchcraft.
The fourth book includes Bodin’s analysis of the special problems involved in prosecuting people for witchcraft. In his description of witchcraft, Bodin places enormous emphasis on the idea that witches are people who have made a pact with the devil – this is an important idea in European witch lore (Bodin, p. 17) – and it was that pact that gave witches their power. (Bodin, p. 196.) In terms that echo Bodin’s concern with the authority of the sovereign, Bodin explains that joining in alliance with the devil is an act of treason against God. Unlike heresy, which is also treason against God, and punishable by burning at the stake, a witch “renounces all religion, either true or superstitious, which can keep men in fear of committing offense.” (Bodin, p. 204.) Bodin found it to be the most heinous crime imaginable since it implied the abandonment of all human empathy, decency, and the very possibility of an ordered society.
One might think that because of the extraordinary claims involved in the accusation that someone has done harm by magic, judges might require an unusual degree of proof to make a conviction. Bodin, however, enjoins judges to use torture and to convict on less evidence than is required for other crimes. (Bodin, pp. 200-202.) He asks them to dispense with some of the protections enjoyed by the accused under the medieval Roman law that he taught and studied. He urges judges to make liberal use of circumstantial evidence (presumptions) to build a case: examples might be, did the accused pass by the home of a victim who suddenly fell dead, or touch him, or was he seen having a dispute with him at the time of the victim’s death? Does he have a close association with or family relation to a known or accused witch, for witches induce their children to become witches in their turn? If the accused does not cry, there is a presumption that she is a witch. A rumor that someone is a witch can provide a presumption. Here according to Bodin, unlike other crimes, presumptions alone could be sufficient to justify administering corporal punishment or putting the accused to torture to extract a confession. (Bodin, p. 201.)
Interestingly, Bodin criticizes the use of judicial ordeals for sorting out who is a witch and who is not, a method that enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in his time, citing the examples of the cold water test (swimming a witch), or spinning sieves, and others. For him, these were simply magical techniques. “For the devil in this way, makes a sorcery of justice, which ought to be sacred.” (Bodin, p. 202.) Despite this caution, however, Bodin himself did not believe that consulting with invisible agencies was altogether illegitimate.
During Bodin’s discussion (in Book 1, Chapter 2) of the relations between spirits and human beings, which mostly focuses on accounts from scripture, he relates a remarkable story. He has a friend, he says, who has had an experience of the presence of a spirit. This friend had always believed a protecting spirit accompanied him all his life, appearing in dreams and visions, urging him to avoid the wrong course and to do good. But at the age of 37, he began to encounter the spirit in physically perceptible ways. In what ways are those? To begin with, it was rapping noises. It first occurred when the spirit made a rapping sound on a glass jar in his room in broad daylight. Soon, the spirit began knocking on his door every morning, and sometimes opening it. If the noise did not rouse him to get out of bed, the spirit knocked on the door again and again until he got up to tend to his prayers. These knockings were heard by an overnight guest as well, a certain secretary of the king, who was thoroughly terrified by the experience. (Bodin, pp. 59-60.)
Throughout the day every day, the spirit touched Bodin’s friend on the right ear when he was doing something bad, and on the left ear when he was doing something good. If he found himself reading an unhelpful or unrighteous book, the spirit knocked the book, even while he held it in his hands. He received premonitory dreams about dangers, one of which actually saved his life. He even perceived the spirit visually on some occasions, most often as a disk of light. Once it appeared as a child dressed in a white robe that turned purple as he watched. (Bodin, pp. 61-62). If you suspect that Bodin’s account is not about a friend, but about Bodin himself, you are not alone. (Rose, p. 164). It reads like the confession of a tremendously important personal experience. It is possible that Bodin’s conviction that witchcraft and demonology are real emerged from a lifelong haunting – his vivid daily personal perception of an entity that he believed to be supernatural. The chapter concludes with a chilling remark that explains how this experience commutes into a commitment toward persecution:
“I certainly wanted to recount what I learnt from this person to show that the association with evil spirits ought not to seem strange, if angels and good spirits have such partnership and understanding with men.” (Bodin, p. 62.)
All citations in this post to De la demonomania des sorciers are to this edition:
Bodin, Jean. On the demon-mania of witches / Jean Bodin ; translated by Randy A. Scott; abridged with an introduction by Jonathan L. Pearl; notes by Randy A. Scott and Jonathan L. Pearl. Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1995.
- Engster, D. “Jean Bodin, Scepticism and Absolute Sovereignty.” History of Political Thought, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Winter 1996), pp. 469-499.
- Franklin, Julian H. Jean Bodin and the rise of absolutist theory. Cambridge [Eng.] University Press, 1973.
- Langbein, John H. Torture and the law of proof: Europe in the ancien régime. [2006 ed.] Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
- Lee, Daniel, 1979. The right of sovereignty: Jean Bodin on the sovereign state and the law of nations. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2021.
- Rose, Paul Lawrence. Bodin and the great God of nature: the moral and religious universe of a Judaiser. Genève: Droz, 1980.
- Turchetti, Mario, “Jean Bodin”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/bodin/>.
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